How Damon Herriman Wound Up Playing Charles Manson in Mindhunter and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

Damon Herriman in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (left), in Mindhunter (right), and as himself (center). Photo: Vulture, Getty Images, Netflix and Sony Pictures Releasing

For many actors, nabbing the part of Charles Manson even once would be the role of a lifetime. For Australian actor Damon Herriman, it happened twice. Earlier this summer, Herriman popped up as Manson in Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood; in a brief scene, he creepily cases the Cielo Drive mansion where the real-life Manson’s followers performed a string of brutal murders. Herriman then reprised the role in the second season of Netflix’s Mindhunter, playing an older, incarcerated Manson who resists the head-shrinking efforts of the show’s titular FBI agents. (He actually booked Mindhunter first.) The double Mansons cap off a whirlwind year of playing creeps for Herriman, who has also appeared as a scummy British soldier in Jennifer Kent’s The Nightingale and an alcoholic puppeteer married to Mia Wasikowska in the Sundance film Judy and Punch. Talking over the phone from Los Angeles, Herriman walked Vulture through the process of getting cast in both Manson projects, the differences in his two performances, and the evolution of his star image.

How did you end up playing Manson in two unrelated projects?
Bizarrely, it was a coincidence. Two productions happened to have a Charles Manson character in them, and I had an opportunity to audition for both. That’s pretty much it. If you’re going for a character like Charles Manson, you can only cast people of a certain height, so that narrows the pool because the guy was incredibly short. A lot shorter than me, but I’m only five-foot-seven, so I scraped into the pool. [Editor’s note: Though he was listed as five-foot-two, Manson himself claimed to be five foot six and three-quarter inches tall. But to be fair, he was also a notorious liar.]

Mindhunter actually came about six months before Once Upon a Time in Hollywood even though they ended up shooting within two weeks of each other. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood came about not through any connection at all to Mindhunter but because of two actors in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood: Nicholas Hammond is a friend because he lives in Australia, and Timothy Olyphant is a friend from the Justified days. Together they brought up my name when they’d heard that Manson hadn’t been cast yet and suggested me to Quentin.

Did you tell them at the Once Upon a Time audition you’d already gone out for Manson in Mindhunter?
I didn’t think that would be a great idea because at that point I already had Mindhunter. I thought that even going for the same character again was a completely fruitless exercise, but I also didn’t want to not do an audition for Quentin Tarantino. So I was like, Well, I’ll do the audition, and if in the highly unlikely event that I get the role, then I have to say, “Hey, I’m already doing this.” He’s almost certainly going to say, “Oh well, thanks but no thanks, we’ll get someone else.” But luckily for me, it didn’t bother him.

What was your experience with Manson like before you’d been cast?
I had read Helter Skelter in my late 20s, and I’d watched some documentaries. But the amount of research that I ended up doing far outweighed that. I watched every feature version I could find, every documentary, every interview several times, read a couple of books, listened to some podcasts. I was trying to get as much information as possible, mostly just trying to soak in the visuals and the sounds of the guy.

He speaks with a certain cadence. He has a very particular sound to his voice. He moves in a certain way. He’s also just way more confident in his body than I am naturally. He slithers like a snake. He’s almost liquid in his movement. He’s certainly the most confident man in any room that I’d ever witnessed him in — on tape, anyway. Those things don’t naturally sit with me, so the good thing with Mindhunter was there was so much lead-up time that I was able to spend a lot of time soaking it in.

Your scene in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is very much about the mythos of Manson — he shows up at Sharon Tate’s house and he’s this instantly sinister presence — whereas Mindhunter is trying to puncture that legend a bit. Where do you personally land with him?
It’s very hard to come to a conclusion on anything about Charles Manson. Of anyone I’ve ever played, I’ve researched him the most and I probably know him the least. It’s so hard to pin down what made that guy tick. He presented a different version of himself depending on the mood he was in at that particular minute of that particular day and who happened to be speaking to him at the time. So it’s really hard to answer that.

The tones of the two are quite different too. Obviously, Mindhunter is very much a drama, whereas a Tarantino movie has a … I don’t know how you would even describe it. It’s that Tarantino tone. There’s a lightness to things. It’s not actually in the finished film, but there’s a scene that we shot where it’s quite a playful version of him. You’re seeing the pre-murder Manson, and he’s the king of his world at that point. He’s living on Spahn Ranch with sex and drugs on tap, everybody is adoring him, and life is perfect. There’s a cheekiness to him in 1969. In 1980, he’s just angry, you know?

Because the tones of the projects are so different, how much did you try to play the same person in each of them, versus treating them as two separate characters?
It’s definitely the same person. The two things that did make it different were the time period and the tone differences. There’s a YouTube video of one of his audition sessions; I think it’s from a year or two before the murders. He’s recording music to try to become a rock star. He talks a lot in the audition. In fact, he can’t even concentrate enough to keep it together through virtually any song. But you hear this man who sounds like a cult leader. You can hear girls laughing at everything he says. He’s spouting philosophies about what he thinks about the world, but there’s a real lightness in the way he speaks. And literally, his voice is lighter. Between those two time periods, 1969 and 1980, his voice changes. You see him in jail in any of those famous interviews later, and there’s a gruffness to him. And I keep coming back to the word bitter. He was incredibly bitter about being in jail. He didn’t think there was any reason. He hadn’t killed anyone. He would say, “I didn’t tell anyone to do what they did. And even if I did …” The whole “If I told you to jump off a cliff, would you?” kind of defense.

To answer your question, it’s a bit of both. I was very aware of those two distinct differences, but I was also very aware that I’m the same actor playing the same character. It would be silly to approach them in a completely different way.

I went into your Mindhunter episode knowing you would be playing Manson, but I don’t know if I would have recognized you in the episode if I hadn’t. What did they do to your face?
It’s an incredible prosthetic job. Kazu, the Japanese makeup artist, did the makeup for me and also for the actor playing David Berkowitz. He’s absolutely extraordinary. I mean, he changed my face. Most areas of my face had some kind of prosthetic to slightly change the shape. The cheekbones and the brow area are more pronounced, and then there are the contact lenses and a really amazing beard and wig. That was a five-hour makeup job every day before we even did anything.

A lot of the time as an actor, you get acting credit for what is actually just amazing writing. In this case, I also think that I owe a hell of a lot to Kazu for the makeup. You’re wanting to suspend people’s disbelief, especially if you’re playing a real person, and with a makeup job like that, the audience was already more than halfway there just from the moment I appeared.

In Once Upon a Time, you shot more scenes that didn’t make the final cut. In Mindhunter, you’ve just got that one scene. How does it affect your process when you know you’re appearing in only a single scene?
I can only speak for myself because I haven’t played lead roles anywhere near as much as I’ve played small roles, but I find small roles much harder because of that very reason. You put pressure on yourself to get it right in a way that you just don’t have when you’re in 40 scenes. Being in one scene, and one pretty important scene, it was very important to me to do whatever I could to capture him as closely as possible so that the audience would, at least for the moment, not be able to remember what the real guy was like. That’s the aim. Whether you achieve that or not is another thing, but that’s what you hope for.

I need to ask you about the way you sit on the chair in Mindhunter. Where did that come from?
That’s from the script. Charles Manson used to do that. The theory being that he was so short, that was a way of giving him some height over whoever he was speaking to. That comes from actual accounts of people who spoke with him, I think possibly even the FBI guys that Mindhunter is based on. It’s a cool thing that they included that, because you can’t imagine that scene without it.

Did they do any special effects to make you look that short?
They cast a really tall prison guard, which was really clever. I’ve never looked shorter than I do in that moment! I had fairly flat shoes on, and I was keeping my body as hunched as possible.

You shot both roles in a two-week span. What were those two weeks like for you?
It was as weird as it sounds. But also very cool, you know? I’m just this guy from Australia who’s been doing bits and pieces over here for a few years, and suddenly within the same couple of weeks, I’m playing Charles Manson for a David Fincher production and a Quentin Tarantino production. You’re pinching yourself, going, How the hell did this happen?

I had to not let myself get overwhelmed by it. I knew that people were going to see both of these things, and whether or not the Manson part worked, it was going to be very much on my shoulders. I just had to be incredibly focused, and I was very relieved once the last day of the last one was done.

How did you decompress?
Oh, just by not thinking about Charles Manson. I’d been spending my weeks in the company of Charles Manson, so I was happy to let that go.

Damon Herriman in The Nightingale. Photo: Matt Nettheim/IFC Films

I saw you earlier this year in Judy and Punch, in which you play a drunken, abusive husband. Then I saw you in The Nightingale, in which you play a rapist. 
Do you want to hang out sometime? Or you’ve got other things to do? [Laughs.]

Now you’re playing Charles Manson twice. How does it feel for creepy guys to be your go-to roles?
I feel quite strongly about it not being that anymore, I can tell you that. I started acting in Australia as a kid, but most of my adult career in Australia I could only get roles as nice guys and nerds and best friends with glasses. I could not even get an audition for any of those roles you just mentioned. I would constantly hear, “No, Damon’s not right, Damon’s not right.” I think it was based on how I presented socially. I present as fairly clean-cut, I wear glasses, and I try to be nice to people. I just don’t think they got an edgy vibe off me. So I was always very frustrated because I would think, What if I had tattoos, you would get me in? Or if I was unshaven or I rubbed dirt on my face? What do I need to do?

It [changed] only when I started working in America. I came over here with a film called House of Wax, which was shot in Australia, where I played a Deliverance-style redneck guy. That was the only American tape I had, so that was the thing my agent would send to people. Then I was playing meth addicts in Breaking Bad and rednecks in Justified. I was the Lindbergh Baby killer in J. Edgar, I was the hit man in Quarry, a homeless person in Flesh and Bone. And then it came to a climax with Nightingale, Judy and Punch, and those two Mansons. These things didn’t shoot particularly close to each other, but all of them came out in the same two months. It hit me a few months ago, and I made a decision: You need to actively pursue roles that are not horrible people, because you’ve done that now. Not to say I wouldn’t again, but I definitely need to take a bit of a break.

Luckily, I just did a series for Epix called Perpetual Grace, LTD, and I play a really sweet guy, so that was immediately a nice change. Right now, I’m in the middle of Barry Jenkins’s new miniseries Underground Railroad, and I play a nice guy in that. It’s starting to turn back around.

How do you feel about the term character actor?
I don’t mind it at all. It’s actually changed definition. In the old days, it tended to refer to an actor who was of a character-y appearance, who tended to play versions of that all the time. As opposed to what it’s come to mean now, which is someone who tends to play a lot of different characters. That’s something I definitely like to do. If that’s the term that sums that up most easily for people, then I’m fine with it. It’s certainly more accurate than leading man when it comes to me, that’s for sure.

How One Guy Played Charles Manson in Mindhunter and OUATIH